(This is part two of a three part series. See part one on the differences between the sexes, women in AA, and denial.)
If you hang out with women recovering from alcoholism, you may get an uncomfortable feeling. Most of them have horror stories to tell. And most of them are laughing about it. The day the baby was forgotten in a department store. The day she told the baby sitter she had migraines – again – so that the arrangements could be changed. Bringing the kids to the bar, waking them up and bundling them in their winter coats over their pajamas, because it was midnight, you were out of booze, but you weren’t quite done yet.
The laughter is good: the women are in recovery, the crisis point has passed, and where the horror used to be a private secret, it has become something the women are dealing with. The laughter indicates, too, how deep and shameful the secrets ran. We all hid. Women are conditioned to hide their alcoholism more than men are. If there are children involved, the hiding becomes ruthless. You hide the vodka behind the frozen veggie burgers, a boxed wine in the trunk of the car, and you look forward to nap time as the new happy hour.
Mothers who struggle with alcoholism face a double whammy: addiction, and a culture that denies alcohol abuse in women.
Alcoholism is a family disease. It is estimated that for every alcoholic, at least eight other lives are dramatically impacted. A 2010 study suggested that 17.6 million Americans are alcoholic or have alcohol related problems.
But friends and family are likely to swear up and down there wasn’t any problem. Part of this is the fact that women are more likely than men to hide or sublimate the problem, and part of it is our cultural inability to pair the word “mother” with the word “alcoholic”, except in the most disparaging of ways. Addiction for most women is a solitary experience, fraught with shame and the psychic pain that comes from depressions, anxieties, and low self concept.
For the most part, the stigma and the secrecy are unfair. They do nothing to intervene, and if anything endanger the children more. Yet we are more likely to blame the mother for being ‘bad’ than look for harm reduction or try to help. Since most of our friends and family are not people we consider ‘bad’, we cannot see their alcohol or drug problems.
New York mother Diane Schuler, who according to state police had a blood alcohol level double the legal limit and high levels of the active ingredient in marijuana when she crashed into an SUV as she drove the wrong way on a New York highway. Schuler, her daughter, three nieces and three men in the SUV died in the accident. Schuler’s son was injured.
Her family insists she had no history of drug or alcohol problems. Other women alcoholics wonder what national conversation would have been had the Schuler been the father, rather than the mother. Likely, we would have said ‘where’s the mother of those children?’, not necessarily excusing the father, but not blaming him as we did Diane.
“How can you possibly — your kids are always first — how can something else get in the way?” is usually what we think when we see a car seat with a toddler waiting in the parking lot of the liquor store. Usually, the woman herself is saying exactly the same thing.
Women have different drinking histories than men do, which can throw a monkey wrench into the ‘progressive nature of alcoholism’ theory and make the problem even harder to see. We assume a woman ‘can’t be’ alcoholic since she quits while she is pregnant, or for years while the children or young, or has what looks like nothing more than a glass or two of an evening out.
It is often the case that child rearing and family situations frame a woman’s drinking. Many women do quit once they become pregnant. Many more manage to stay ‘healthy’ for years while the children are young. Many women do not become ‘full blown alcoholics’ until middle age, in the course of a year or two covering ground that male alcoholics do in 20 years of regular drinking. Studies are beginning to show that child rearing may have something to do with this.
But if a woman is alcoholic, that control is limited. She may make it through to middle age without a problem, and then self-implode. But she may have a much more anxiety driven, hidden struggle of sometimes control than anybody ever sees. She may limit and control her drinking for weeks and months at a time, but have the occasional binge and lose it. The unpredictability is hell. The struggle to hold it – and the family – together ups the ante. All of it contributes to shame.
I knew a woman who quit drinking when her children were seven and five. She had a damaged liver, drank to the point of drunkenness every night, and whenever she was away from the kids she drank with abandon. Yet when she told her husband she needed to quit, he didn’t believe she drank that much. Sitting in the office of a drug and alcohol counselor, his eyes popping as she answered questions, he quickly agreed that she did, in fact, have a problem. She’s been sober 12 years. She is one of those women who seems to have integrated her drinking years with grace, to have found the lessons, made the best reparations she could, and used it all as a starting point from which to grow. She is a funny, sarcastic, ruthlessly intelligent woman.
But if she looks at photographs of her kids in those early years, she still breaks down into tears.
Part of the “12 steps” of AA is acknowledging the damage done and making amends where you can. I know another woman, three years sober now, with kids 9 and 6. She remembers driving from Minneapolis to Chicago to visit family. Stopping, every hour or so, to refill her water bottle from the trunk. I always said I’d never drink with the kids in the car, but suddenly I was doing it all the time. I was never ‘drunk’, but I was drinking. I broke all my own interior rules and the shame overwhelmed me until I just numbed it out. I just withdrew further and further inside, wearing more and more pretend outside.” This is the amend and the admission she has yet to make; she wants to tell her husband, but hasn’t yet been able to do so. Everything else, she’s done. But the shame here is just too much.
I knew another (and another, and another) woman who drank while mothering. She worked in a restaurant. While she worked, the kid’s father had him. But sometimes after work, she had a shift drink, that turned into five or six. If the father got annoyed at her not coming to pick up the kid, he would drive to the restaurant and set the car seat, child inside, on top of her car. She thinks he sat there for an hour or two once before she realized he was there.
And another woman, mother of four, who used to wake up her eldest, say she was going to the bar, and that the girl should listen and be the sitter if the others woke. This went on for the girl’s entire life. Her mother quit drinking when she was 19 years old and had, effectively, raised her siblings. At least after 8 p.m.
The secret is not only that some women do manage to white knuckle their addiction while child rearing, but that it is usually the children that inspire a woman to seek help.
We’re in recovery
There are few places in the world where you get to simultaneously inhale lives of utter tragedy and radical overcoming. AA is one of those places. I go, and I feel the luck of my life as in thank god that wasn’t me. I go, and I feel an odd, tingley thing at the back of my neck when I hear other women telling my own story. I go, and I am frightened into working harder. I go, and I am inspired by women who have overcome things I could not even survive.
The miracle is simple and profound and incredibly rapid. Of course, there is no way to erase the past, and many women will always struggle with the guilt and shame of addiction while parenting. However, the bonds re-established and re-affirmed in recovery can be the most fantastic and gorgeous thing in the world. I watch as children who come in as brats, spoiled, loud, uncontrollable, tantrum filled, become sweet and expressive in a matter of two or three weeks. I watch them find some sense of safety as their mother recovers. I watch their eyes open to their own selves, their power, their rights as children. I have seen kids of five and six plainly tell their mothers all sorts of things they are angry about and want to talk about. I have seen kids of 12 and 16 tell their mothers they have been afraid, angry, and abandoned, but that they love.
Damage, or strength, is not in what happens in our lives, but in what we do with what happens to us. It is true that growing up with an alcoholic parent has detrimentally affected millions of kids. It’s taken them from homes, it’s ended in deaths and malnutrition and poor education, it ends in arbitrariness and emotionalism.
But it also true that families in recovery may develop stronger bonds, better communication, and increased resilience individually because of their experience.
Alcoholic families, and each individual in them, lives in a world of bare survival. The world is experienced as unpredictable, arbitrary, inconsistent. Life here is emotionally damaging at best, and sometimes a nightmare. Denial sits everywhere, as the kids learn not to express what they know and feel, and that they are not accepted for themselves (since they can’t be what they know and feel).
Recovery begins somewhere, somehow. What essentially happens is that the alcoholic becomes aware that change is possible. It is very much like an awakening. Sometimes, this awakening precedes and impels the sobriety. Sometimes, sobriety happens as as the days unfold, the wider truth in the world starts to show it’s face.
Recovery can also begin without the alcoholic. This is the whole theme of the Adult Children of Alcoholics movement and Al-Anon. The child or spouse or parent of the alcoholic may hit that awakening point. Connections made be made between past experiences and current suffering, so that current suffering no longer seems so crazy and overpowering. Low self-esteem and inability to trust or feel pleasure are seen as natural reactions to an alcoholic house hold, not some inner truth of being bad, sick, crazy or dumb.
Once those awakenings begin to happen, the recovering person starts to work through some core issues; quitting drinking is more than quitting drinking. What happens then are experiences of transformation, integration, and the birth of love and connection.
The paths mothers and children take through the journey are always unique, but share landscapes with others.
I am not a mother. Rather, I am, but I do not have my children. One was given in adoption, and others were aborted. This has everything to do with my alcoholism. I knew I was unfit to be a mother. This is the heart of my shame, my grief, and often threw me straight back to the bottle.
In the early days of my sobriety, I struggled. I struggled with the anxiety of not drinking, with the mood swings, the seeming enormity of a life without alcohol in it ever again.
Another woman came a few weeks ahead of me. She was a year older than I, had three kids, and a violently abusive husband. Not only did she quit drinking because she realized her kids knew and were in danger because of it, but she left her abusive husband. She moved into a shelter for abused women. When not all three kids could go, the eldest went to stay with friends. She got a job. That wasn’t enough, so she got another. She was aware that she wanted a higher earning capacity so she enrolled in nightschool. She went to a meeting every day, rebuilt the damage with her children, worked her ass off, and started to build a life.
I realized I had nothing to really complain about. I have a dog. He doesn’t complain if he doesn’t get walked right away. I have my own miserable self. This woman, her success, her face, made me keep coming back.
It was a pregnancy that actually got me sober. I got pregnant, decided to quit drinking, and realized I could not. I re-committed, went a day, and got plastered again. I got an abortion, and I got sober. Sitting on the gurney in the doctor’s office, she asked some basic questions about why I was making the choice I did. I could not tell her I couldn’t have a child because I couldn’t stop drinking. I was too ashamed.
And the shame, and grief, and terrible anger followed me. I felt tremendously sad.
One day, at a speaker meeting, I heard a woman in her forties speak. She seemed well enough put together, she smiled. As she began to tell her story, she talked of having a young child, a baby daughter. One night, while drunk, she went for a walk with the baby. She lost the child. She didn’t realize she’d lost the child until she woke up the next morning. She never found her. The baby was gone. Kidnapped? Frozen? Dropped in a garbage can? Sitting in a police station somewhere? She never found out. Years later, she got sober.
I was shocked stupid in my seat and walked out of the meeting in a daze. Again, my story seemed suddenly small and manageable. And I realized with an overpowering sense of truth that there is very little difference between that woman and myself. Had I had the child, there is no reason to think I would have quit drinking. Drinking, the way I drank, there is every reason to believe I’d go for a walk one night and lose my child, forever.
It’s not quite the same as losing a cat.
(This is part two of a three part series. See part one on the differences between the sexes, women in AA, and denial.)